Thicker than Water

Ross had expected to feel something before he’d heard the news. Some sort of psychic warning that his brother was in trouble. He’d read about identical twins sharing the knowing of each other across thousands of miles distance but here in Berlin his brother was only six hours away by train, and yet he had felt nothing before the phone call that morning from a mutual friend.

Ross had one shot to make things right again. Make his peace and bury the decade of poison that flowed like an ever growing river between them both. Even though most of this ill tide was on his brother’s part, he still hadn’t been able to reach out to him on the other river bank such was the strength of feeling. Days had become months, months became years, neither picked up the phone. And now he’d only heard his brother had terminal cancer of the throat by chance. How ironic had been his first thought that someone who’d spent the majority of his life spouting so much shit should finally be killed by his mouth.

As children they had got along fine, but his brother had always reached for the stars whereas he’d always been of the opinion that you should never lose the ground, it was always there to be hit, and so he’d pretty much stayed at sea level. Even their parents had found it hard to tell them apart physically, but mentally they were chalk and cheese, and as they matured into young men only a mole on his brother Ivan’s top lip could distinguish them, and sometimes just for fun, his brother would cover it up with his mother’s concealer and they’d pretend to be each other. Ross smiled despite the heavy rain as he remembered the sunnier memories. Damn it he had to at least try to get the money to visit and bury the hatchet, he had to try, even if Ivan buried the hatchet in his back.

And so that is how Ross found himself hovering outside the doorway of Berlin’s premier Texas steakhouse on one of the rainiest and industrially depressing nights of the short year. The restaurant looked so inviting looking in from outside in the bitter cold of this winter’s evening, the condensation steaming up the inside of the window. Mixed with the raucous sound of laughter and bass line thumping against the glass Ross knew that the usual house bet must be on. Ross checked the menu one last time to make sure he hadn’t misunderstood. ‘The 75 once steak challenge. Free if you eat it in twenty-five minutes and 75 Euros too. I50 Euros bill for the meal if you fail. Ten winners only in five years. Dare you?’

Ross steeled his resolve. He knew that he dared but whether his digestive system and gut agreed he wasn’t so sure. Having quite a skinny frame he had a strong appetite and fast metabolism but his very size meant he couldn’t rack and stack the food anywhere. Still, needs must, he told himself, and if he didn’t get that 75 Euros he couldn’t get his train fare back home. And home was where he desperately needed to be and quickly. His brother’s success in life had been in direct proportion to Ross’s failure, and his brother was very successful if a little shady. The hatred that existed between them had certainly not been built of competition between twins, his brother had always won everything hands down, and since his work involved something to do with property, possibly gun-running and definitely money-laundering, Ross had never dug too deeply into his brother’s affairs: except for the one affair that had caused all the trouble. He remembered all those Sunday morning’s in church as well as his brother: ‘Thou shalt not covert thy brother’s wife’.

No one noticed Ross enter the restaurant, all humble and dishevelled, but when he sat himself down in the empty steak challenge chair, the bell above the kitchen galley rang out and a whoop went out from the chef. The regular diners, of which there were many turned round as one to see who had been foolhardy enough to take up the challenge. Their goodwill was immediately extinguished by the pitiful figure that greeted them, all bent out of shape and looking like an unmade bed.

But a challenge is a challenge and the manager came over, explaining rules into Ross’ face, breath full of coffee and garlic. Ross heard the important points and reached inside his soaking wet jacket to pull out an equally battered wallet from which he fished out a credit card that he knew would never work.

The manager accepted it as deposit and started cooking up the mountain of meat. A steak so large it looked like a cow had been shot whilst conveniently standing over a large plate.

‘How you want your steak cooked?’ leered in the manager.

Ross thought about the reality of what would soon be in front of him. Real juicy and raw, using the blood as a kind of soup to lubricate it all down his throat; or char-grilled and denser, smaller yet tougher.

As with so many things in his life he went for the middle-ground.

‘Medium, please…’

The first few mouthfuls tasted like heaven. The hot succulent flesh all crisp and charred on the outside yet soft and melting within. Ross involuntarily closed his eyes to savour the moment as the thick meat juices ran down the back of his throat. Behind him the manager shouted out the clock and Ross remembered the seriousness of his undertaking, with less than fifty cent in his pocket and despite only eating bread and beans for the past week, he wasn’t here to enjoy himself, and failure would mean not making the money, not making peace with his brother, and probably getting a royal kicking to boot when the manager realised his credit card was declined.

By the twentieth minute he had a good meat sweat on.  The taste sensation had now become rancid in his mouth, too much blood. By the final two he knew he was dead. Countdown down to the wire, meat hanging out of his mouth, each chew like a horse’s saddle on a hot day by the sea, salt-stained and dry. The crowd counted down with him, sensing up to this point a man of purpose. He’d chewed through the first fifty ounces like a combine harvester through buttered corn. Even being allowed to cut of the grissle and excess fat had probably saved him about nine ounces in weight. But this final twenty ounces was proving to be a bit sticky.

Eight, the crowd clapped out the final ten seconds behind him. With each piece of now cold and grey steak he swallowed it clicked down his throat louder than the claps behind him.

Seven, a tail of yellow fat, caught on one of the sinews of the final chunks made him gag, it felt like he’d just swallowed a rat and its tail was still sticking up over the back of his tongue. He fell forward on the table, literally using the table-edge to ease the hunk of flesh further down his oesophagus into his stomach. He felt like a bloated anaconda, eyes bigger than his tummy.

Three, two… he wasn’t going to do it, he was knew he was going to miss by a New York mile. He spat out the final chunk on the whistle, grateful more than anything that he didn’t need to swallow it. That was it then, he thought to himself, putting down the fork and seeing the manager approaching, credit card machine in hand. Not for the first time this year he was fucked. Failed by his own hand yet again.

Ross could tell by the manager’s face he’d already tried to run the card through the machine and come up with a blank. Bad blood left on the plate, bad blood in the restaurant. The manager shoved the hand-held credit card machine into Ross’ face. The crowd turned back to their business trying to forget losers. But intercepting the credit card machine on which he thought he’d vomit was a hand. Ross looked up the sleeve to see a clean pressed cuffs and gold cufflinks. The hand held two hundred dollar bills.

The hand spoke through Ross’ meat haze.

‘Forget the card. Here’s the cash ok.’

Ross looked up at his good Samaritan and into kind eyes.

‘If you’re sure, sir?’

‘Sure I’m sure. Just have a drink with me, I’ve got something to discuss with you.’

‘Me?’

‘You.’ The eyes briefly lost their kindliness and Ross could see dark hard flint in the pupils.

He took the money and placed it in the juiciest part of the plate, watching the bills absorb the blood. The manager fished them out and offered him back the declined card, but Ross shook his head.

‘Keep it Herr, no use to me.’ He turned to his well-dressed saviour. ‘Better not to drink here, hey?’

The man nodded agreement, ‘I know a place close-by.’ He held out his hand to Ross.

‘I’m Christof, Chris.’

Two hours and ten rounds of drinks later, both men found themselves loose and comfortable in the now empty bar Chris had found. Ross found it easy to talk to him, he felt there was no artifice, no mask to the man. He seemed open and honest, if a little tired looking and odd.

‘Fuck it,’ laughed Chris, ‘I’ve just been on a six-day bender and I came up with this…’ He pulled a wad of folded and crumpled paper from the back of his jeans pocket, almost bowing slightly to Ross as he lifted his buttocks off the chair to allow access. Ross noted his accent now he was drunk and slurring his words, definitely from the Austrian border region, possibly even Austrian. He hadn’t even asked him where he was from, such had been the intensity of their drinking, so he made a mental note to ask, then instantly forgot. Chris spread the paper out on the table trying to smooth out some of the creases with his open palm. Ross tried to focus his eyes in the dim light of the bar. Handwritten with sketchy ink diagrams. The palm continued to try to smooth out the ruffles but it wasn’t helping, it still looked like the ramblings of a disordered mind.

‘What am I looking at here…?’

Chris immediately whipped the paper away with a self-conscious flourish. ‘Ah, fuck it, it ain’t nothing. Forget it’.

Ross shrugged his shoulders and looked round to attract the waitress’ attention. Being the last two left in the bar she immediately picked up on his hand signals, and let out a sigh as she realised he didn’t want to settle the cheque but was in fact ordering up another round. She grimaced a pained smile to him, no words spoken between them but meaning carried across.

Ross turned back to Chris feeling fuelled by the break in the intensity of their conversation. ‘So tell me Ross, where would you like to live if money were no object. I’m talking totally in terms of women here. Women being the top consideration, then things like weather, landscape, vibe, you know…. but women being pinnacle?’

Ross leaned back on the chair, but being old hardened wood it didn’t have as much give to his back as he’d like. Trying to push the rickety poles back he creaked out his thinking:

‘Thailand.’

‘For real you would?’

‘Yeah, I think so.’

‘No, Thai women don’t do it for me. New Orleans. I’m a jazz man, I want to be in a hot bayou stink. Wiping the sweat from my brow as I take another line. In fact…’ He got up from his chair and moved to the jukebox against the pool table. Ross hadn’t even noticed it in the gloom, but he drained his drink watching his new found benefactor punch in numbers to the machine. Almost instantly some Jazz sound erupted up from crusty speakers buried out of sight in the roof. Chris began to shimmy back to the table, make believing he was dancing with someone solely for Ross’ benefit. Ross laughed to himself, part in the comedy of the moment and part in sympathy for this strange fool who’d paid for his steak and watered him with great whiskey all night. Chris sat back down and as if on cue the waitress brought over the drinks. Chris picked up his crumpled paper left on the table to make way for them.

Ross acknowledged the music with his finger pointing it skyward before swinging it down to the drinks, pointing at them, then bringing his whole palm back up to his temple, snapping out an army-style salute to Chris and the waitress.

‘Thanks.’ He grabbed his scotch and water and drained a good half before slamming it back down on the table. He suddenly felt selfish.

‘Tell me then if you won’t show me. What had you written there? No really, I’d like to see it.’ Ross pointed as Chris folded it once more, hurrying it away into his jacket .

Chris shook his head and leaned forward again in a similar bowing motion, this time he reached into the other jean pocket.

‘Nope. That was your only chance to see it, I feel foolish showing you it now. Anyhow, no matter. This speaks better than my writing…’

The gun hit the table as a brute fact. He let the revolver speak for itself, no words necessary to supplement. Ross’s eyes went from swimming to pin-sharp panic. He looked up at Chris and then back down to the firearm, desperately trying to deny the reality. Chris spoke, his voice now as cold as the gun metal.

‘Firearms really are so sexy aren’t they? God you just feel so powerful pulling it out.’

Ross froze, the delightful warm fuzzy sensation in his brain instantly drained, chased out by sharp icicles. Chris placed his index finger in the trigger and spun the gun faster and faster.

‘Sorry, old boy…’ he said, ‘but I need you to shoot me, and neither of us can leave till you have…’ And then, with an inflection as if he’d just ordered up two drinks from the bar and was checking the order… ‘OK?’

When Ross’ voice came it was thin and high, ‘What is this? You gone all Deer Hunter on me…? What the fuck is this?’

Ross made an instinctive reach for the gun with the reflexes of an animal in danger, but Chris, sensing this as predator got their first, beating him to the draw.

‘Afraid so. I require… no I NEED you to kill me… and quick’.

‘Quit kidding around. OK you’re actually starting to freak me out here…’

The eyes remained unchanged, steel purpose, no humour. The gun looked the same.

‘It’s simple. I need you to go to prison for my murder. I’m sorry but that’s just the way it is.’

Ross stood up, kicking his chair back, all in. ‘You’re odd mate. Fuck this’.

‘Show me your palm.’

‘What?’

‘Your palm, give it to me, I come from a long line of palmists, my grandmother was Romany gypsy. I can prove to you it’s written in your palm that you must be out of sight for ten years.’

Without fully knowing why, Ross sat down and offered up his palm. Ridiculous as it felt, Chris’ southpaw comment had thrown him. Chris took the open palm and studied the contours for a few seconds before gently placing the revolver in it. Chris curled the fingers of Ross’ hand around the butt and laughed.

‘Do it.’

Ross snorted. Chris repeated.

‘Do it pussy..’

Ross dropped the gun back as if it were molten hot, it skidded across towards the beer coasters and pistachio nut shells narrowly avoiding knocking the pitcher of water off the table edge. Chris steadied it with his free hand.

‘Everything’s already in place. It’d make no sense if you left now, Mr. Ross. Mr. Ross Zimmer, date of birth twenty-fifth June nineteen seventy-seven, National Insurance number KA 55 33 E5, address 6 Palo Alto, Berlin…’

Ross sat down with a thud. ‘How you know that, how the fuck you know all that, i just met you.’

Chris touched the gun with his index finger.

‘Just pull the trigger mate, it’ll save a lot of time. You’ll do it in the end anyway.’

Ross drained his glass, thought about looking round to the waitress but felt a pang of sudden paranoia.

‘No.’

‘Look, I’ll make it simple, I need you to spend ten years in prison. Quickest way I can guarantee that is for you to shoot me in cold blood. I’ve left a paper trail that’ll back up our story. Payments, bank accounts, deals gone sour… your wife. You’ll be looking at a ten stretch, no more.’

Ross leaned forward on his elbows across the table trying to moderate the noise.

‘My wife..? What you know about my wife?’

‘Hell, they said you’d be tough. Come on mate, be a good boy, just do it, hey?’

Ross knocked his empty glass over causing it shatter on the concrete floor. The waitress jumped off her stool and headed towards the last table. Ross sensing her perfume in his heightened state stuck up his hand and warned her back. She shuffled on the spot unsure what to do next. Chris reached down to a bag he’d been cradling between his ankles. He flipped it up onto the table, covering the gun.

‘I’ve been told I can go to three hundred thou maximum, just so you know. That’s all that’s in the bag, that’s all you can have.’ He threw open the bag to display wads of fifty Euro bills in elastic bands, encased in bubble-wrap. Ross found himself staring at the brown rubber bands holding what he judged to be small tight and urgent wads of two thousand Euros.

‘That’s mine? For shooting you, let me get this straight yeah, you fucking nutter.’

‘No. That’s three hundred k for you killing me AND doing ten years inside. That’s the important part.’

Ross rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands, his voice incredulous and dripping with sarcasm.

‘Fine. Sorry if it’s an obvious question but why do you want me in prison for ten years?’

‘Ah that I can’t tell you. Let’s just say we need you off the scene for a while.’

‘We..? Who’s We?’

‘We…’ Chris let the sound hang in the air and now he himself caught the waitress’ gaze as she hovered halfway between the bar and the table. With a voice that sounded to Ross a whole too powerful and relaxed Chris ordered up another round of drinks.

‘I promise it’ll be the last round, honey. Hey bring the cheque too if you like.’ Chris looked down to see his drinking partner’s hand reach under the navy blue sack trying to locate the gun. Chris leaned up on elbows and slammed them down onto the bag either side of Ross’ hand, trapping it.

‘Only go for it if you’re going to use it. OK?’

Ross tried to hold his gaze but blinked in the steel certainty he saw, and withdrew his hand, pulling with it some bubble-wrap that had snagged on one of the studs.

Chris looked at his watch and began tutting, ‘ You’ve got just under ten minutes to shoot me, otherwise the bet’s off. They’ll be coming through that door and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.’

Ross shook his head as if trying to rattle a dream from his brain. The fight had gone out of him. He collapsed back into the chair, methodically popping the little round air-pockets in the bubble-wrap. Each pop felt like another synapse in his brain frying.

‘Look, you’ve got to help me out here. You can’t just tell me to kill you and, hey, here have half a million…’

‘…three hundred thousand…’ Chris interjected.

‘… Jesus… OK three hundred. Why not five fucking trillion. I’m not gonna shoot you am I? That money could be counterfeit for all I know.’

‘What you mean if I could prove the money was real, you might do it?’

‘Yes, No… I mean. Ok this is some sort of tv show yeah? The bullets are blanks, yeah? This is all some mindfuck tv thing?’ Ross threw out his arms as if ready to accept the joke. When no camera appeared he suddenly felt his arms flung wild more as a crucifixion. Exposed and frightened he leant over the bag pleading with Chris.

‘What the fuck’s going on here?’

‘Eight minutes fucker.’

‘Why me?’ Ross’ voice had a pitiful tone to it now. The question asked by the small child in him. Chris responded by kissing his teeth.

‘My mistake… Seven minutes…’

The waitress slammed the drinks down on the bag, making as much of a critisicm as she dared. She looked across at Chris.

‘Here let me get that’, he said, reaching for the bag with his left hand, carefully sliding his right under to move the gun with it.

She placed the drinks left and right, pulling up her low-cut top when she saw Chris ogling her. The time for flirting was done, she wanted them out of here. She looked across at Ross, sweaty and nervous in the dim light, his face had taken on an almost blue shade. She felt it worth noting.

‘You alright hunny?’

Ross managed to choke out an unconvincing affirmative. The waitress felt back in control and regained her composure. ‘Good, well drink up folks this is the last one. I got off half an hour ago.’

Chris raised a glass in agreement and she, satisfied order had once more been restored, returned to her comfort zone behind the bar to cash up the night’s takings. Once he was sure she was safely ensconced in her task, Chris brought the revolver out again and, holding it by the barrel, he offered the handle to Ross.

‘Quit fucking around hey Ross and just do it? Do it quick. Do it fast and take the caaasshhh…’ There was that Austrian twang again, Ross noted.

‘…Then just staaasshhh it somewhere, somewhere safe so that the police never find it, so you can spend it when you get out. Listen, listen carefully. Pull the trigger, head immediately to Zoo Station and rent a locker. Stash the bag in the locker then get a tram to the other side of town. Then, just do what you want. They’ll find you eventually, so hang out, take a movie, get drunk. Actually hell yes, get royally drunk, as you won’t be able to for ten years.’

Ross took the gun and felt its weight.

‘What if I shoot you, take the money and then fly out the country to south America, start a new life?’

‘Nope, sorry, we need to guarantee you’re not around for ten years. But try it if you like… knock yourself out. Ha. This is real life Ross not a movie. How far do you think you’d get creating a new identity and slipping through international borders?  Ha, you’re a superspy yeah?’

Ross pointed the gun at Chris, peaked by his humiliation, but this only made him smile more.

‘That’s the spirit, jolly good show. Come on, less than four minutes now…. time to shit or get off the pot as they say…’

‘This is insane…’

Ross rested the gun on top of the hold-all and pulled back the zipper to look for himself. Beneath the wads of cash he saw the dark brown corner of  something. He reached in and pulled out a European passport. Opening up the fly-leaf he recognised the holder instantly. ‘Ivan Zimmer’. Digging deeper into the bag he pulled out a whole clump of documents all revealing the same name, a name he knew well even after a decade of bad blood.

‘My brother? I knew it. I knew he had to be involved somehow…’

Chris nodded. He seemed almost glad that the secret was now out, and smiled at Ross with a genuine warmth he hadn’t hitherto seen.

‘I’m glad the cat’s out the bag, pardon the pun. Don’t ask me any more details as I really can’t.’

Ross scratched his head trying to piece it all together.

‘So he’s in some kind of trouble… other than dying?’

Chris seemed surprised by this but answered flatly ‘He’s not dying, I can tell you that much, maybe he wants certain interested parties to think he is? I genuinely don’t know, I only get told so much, Ross.’

Ross nodded. ‘Ah, now it makes sense. He’s done something and needs me to take the rap for it? This money is my incentive to pretend to be him and do his time for him. Meanwhile he runs about free as me? Am I close?’

Chris shrugged his shoulders. ‘It’s no use I can’t tell you.’ Ross tried again.

‘There’s one thing I don’t get though, why do I have to kill you? What’s in it for you? You love my brother so much you’re willing to die for him? You’d be the first who did, I can tell you that for truth.’

Chris’ eyes narrowed. ‘All I can tell you is it involves family and money. Sometimes a life only makes sense with what you can leave behind for others. You’re not the only one with family, hey.’

Ross picked up the gun and pointed it at him as he zipped up the bag. Chris was once more getting impatient.

‘Less than a minute, Pal. Fucking do it. Pull it’. Chris tightened his stomach muscles and scrunched his eyes shut. His top lip began to quiver even though he bit down hard on it. Ross studied his face, in the dark light of the bar he looked like he’d seen some hard battles, scars and pitted skin, and up top by the hairline were heavy burn marks, almost as if his face was melting in the heat of the candle light.

‘No’, replied Ross. ‘I can’t kill you in cold blood, I can’t kill you without knowing why, oh hell, I can’t kill you anyway’.

‘You must. You simply must. Pull that cunting trigger. Do it now. Pull it now…’

Ross still had the barrel pointed at his drinking partner’s chest, it wavered in his hand, trembling more than Chris’ lip.

‘I…’

‘NOW…’ Chris threw his arms wide and slammed his knees into the table, lifting the legs off the ground. He screamed at the top of his voice, startling Ross who flinched and squeezed. Something in the timbre of the voice now shouting he recognised and the realisation struck him harder than the bullet he’d just shot into Chris’ chest. The waitress dropped the tray of glasses fresh from the dishwasher, the lingering sound of the smashing glass on the hard concrete floor seemed to form a counterpoint to the brisk ear-splitting crack of the gunshot. Ross had only applied the slightest pressure to the hair-trigger but the shock had been enough to set the gun off. Chris looked down at his chest to see the reddening mess of his rib-cage opened up and as bloody as the seventy ounce steak. With the last of his life force he reached up to his face which now seemed to be melting in his death throws. He grabbed a loose piece of latex by his hair line and pulled it off in a long downward motion revealing a different, more angular and tanned face underneath.

‘You always were a jumpy pussy, Ross, mum was right.’

Chris tore another latex strip off the mask then grabbed under the remainder and just pulled. Enough of the real face was now visible under the mask for Ross to realise the truth. He saw himself staring back at him. Identical in everyway except for the mole on the top lip. Twins.

‘Ivan.’

‘I got you, I finally got you, you little bastard. Now suffer like I did. I was dying, that’s no lie, now I really am dying. But I’m glad YOU rather than cancer caused my death. Cancer can’t go to jail, cancer has no feelings, there’s no point trying to get revenge on it. Cancer can’t be made to suffer..’

Ivan revealed, his hand full of latex and blood pointed now pointed to Ross.

‘But YOU can, my brother.’

Ross’ eyes went wide as oyster shells, he stumbled from the chair spluttering pure petrified emotion, ‘I was coming, coming to see you, I…I loved you… I…meant…to…find…you…’

Ivan laughed a mucus sticky laugh, his lungs filling with blood, bad blood. As he spoke, his lips stuck to his teeth,  ‘I didn’t have much time left, so  I found you…’ He exhaled a final death rattle, the last cobra twisting lost as the bar doors flew open and a squadron of riot police stormed into the bar, spotlights and pepper spray. Ross, his brother’s passport in one hand and still smoking revolver in the other raised his arms towards the speakers in the ceiling still pumping out jazz heavenward, waiting for what must inevitably come next…

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Comments
  1. Cheers Coco, very kind of you to say. I dig your writing too – maybe we should collaborate sometime 😉

    Mike

  2. “The first few mouthfuls tasted like heaven. The hot succulent flesh all crisp and charred on the outside yet soft and melting within” i really like this line. your writing is really great to read. CHEERS friend!!

  3. Thank you. Glad to know someone is reading it 🙂

  4. Thanks Chico, very kind comment. All the best, Mike

  5. Chico Gringo Segundo says:

    Great story, great twist. Ivan was a stinker wasn’t he. Ross really got stuck for that one. it was a great setup. I believe you have out did yourself her. This is probably the best story yet, which i have read. keep writing.

  6. msladynicole says:

    Love it!!!

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